Equine Artist Yvette Frahn
“I challenge you to do a painting a day.”
Yvette Frahn had been working part-time as an equine artist for some time when her friend set the challenge to her – to create one new work a day.
Yvette was momentarily at a loss – where would she get the inspiration to create such a long stream of new pieces?
Then she was struck by a realisation. She had the source material out in the back paddock – her mare, Tooky, and on her desk, a towering stack of photographs she had already taken of her.
Over the next few months, Yvette created over 60 artistic works in ink depicting Tooky. She was astonished when the pieces began selling across Australia and overseas.
“I couldn’t believe this funny horse, doing her thing out in the paddock on the farm, would be loved by so many people,” Yvette tells me.
“This is when I discovered you can live in absolute isolation on a farm and you can connect to the whole world.”
A rural upbringing led to the simultaneous development of a love of horses and a love of art. Yvette points to a moment she remembers vividly, spotting “a grubby little pony” when she was four years old and feeling an instant connection to the creature.
“That’s actually where it started. You know how people talk about having a calling? Something they just can’t not do? That’s how it was for me.”
Yvette’s mother drew horses for her at her daughter’s behest, until one day, Yvette was no longer satisfied with her depictions and took the pencil for herself.
Growing up, she was perceived as slightly odd by her peers and classmates for this unusual combination of interests. “When you’re horsey and you’re a creative, you automatically don’t fit in a box [especially] in a rural district.”
Nevertheless, she persisted. Despite initially enrolling in a horse husbandry course at an agricultural college, Yvette found equine studies didn’t quite suit her. After a period of travel and uncertainty, she returned with “the absolute clarity that what I needed to do was study art, because that’s what drove me.”
The horse husbandry course did, however, offer one unexpected benefit. “The beautiful part of it was we got to do dissections,” Yvette says.
“I learned an awful lot about anatomy. I think that’s partly what governs my artwork: my need to be faithful to what I know underlies the skin and the muscles, the skeletal structure…
I get wildly excited about colour, and a lot of my artwork has extreme colour in it, but if you look underneath that, I am anatomically obsessive.”
Yvette studied her undergraduate degree at Ballarat University, where supportive lecturers allowed her to focus on her interest in equine art in her final year. She was encouraged to undertake further artistic study afterwards, but her interests called her elsewhere.
“I kept thinking about what it felt like when I was a kid, when being creative was a weird thing, and I thought actually I’d rather study education,” she says.
After gaining her secondary education qualification, Yvette decided rather than following the school curriculum, she would develop her own art education program and teach privately.
Underlying her educational work is the need “to connect back to those kids that were like me when I was little, and for that matter adults, and anyone else in society…
I could create that beautiful atmosphere where you are in the moment as a creative person, and you are constantly experimenting and trying things out…
I wanted people to just make art for art’s sake and celebrate being inventive.”
It has illuminated another aspect to her sense of self as an artist. “I find there’s half of me that loves being introverted, stuck in the studio and making art. And the other half of me loves getting out there and sharing it with everyone, and inspiring people to have a go themselves.”
Ultimately, it is the horses that fuel her creatively. I ask why she decided to focus so particularly on the equine. “I didn’t choose it; it chose me,” she answers.
“They are infinitely fascinating and infinitely complicated. They never ever get boring, and I never get to the point where I think I know so much that I don’t need to do more of it.”
There are two horses that stand out as models she has returned to again and again in her practice.
The first, Blue Jasper, was her first serious competition horse. He and Yvette competed all over the Adelaide Hills and enjoyed great success in the show jumping ring.
“That’s a sport that teaches you about leg obsession!” says Yvette. “Obviously it’s pretty hard work on their legs, and you get kind of fascinated by what’s going on with the joints and ligaments, and stuff like that.”
“I did a lot of artwork of [Blue Jasper], and carted him all over the country and, in fact, he’s buried on the farm here,” Yvette tells me.
These days, her work is dominated by the aforementioned Tooky – a mare with attitude. “She’s a bit lethal. And that’s one of the reasons why she’s going to spend the rest of her life with me,” she says.
Yvette found Tooky, an ex-racehorse, through a friend when she was in search of a riding horse. After being confronted with the mare’s front and back hooves in close proximity, despite her better judgement, she found herself saying “I’ll take her.”
Yvette has never been able to change Tooky’s nature, but it’s clear they’ve struck a kind of accord. Perhaps it is Tooky’s vivid personality that gives her such life on the canvas.
“My ultimate focus with all the art that I do of horses relates to that magical moment as a four year old where I connected with this living being,” says Yvette. “I paint to connect, I suppose… It’s in the pursuit of that ultimate visual perfection that brings the life of that horse into your world.”
Yvette has the pleasure of working from her home farm, in a barn studio that she and her husband converted together. “I married the neighbour,” she laughs.
As a young girl she always had the support of her parents, and as Yvette grew older, her husband, Gary, became her greatest champion.
“He committed to supporting my art even before we married and it is with his never faltering faith in what I can do that we have done so many things, and nearly all of it together… I don’t know that I could do this without him. He is my rock.”
While her skill and commitment is key to her artistic achievement, clear communication underlies Yvette’s success as a businesswoman.
The process of commission involves detailed discussions of the planned work and, if it is a larger piece – requiring a proportionally larger time commitment and investment – Yvette will produce sketches of the design.
“In all that conversation you have before a commitment of that size is made, you get an understanding for what matters to them as a horse owner,” Yvette explains.
If the owner is committing to a big piece and the horse isn’t too far away, sometimes Yvette will round up her photographer friend, Kerri-Ann Afford, and hit the road to meet her subject in the flesh.
“Every time I meet a horse and do something special with that horse as an artist, it seems to lead to a body of extraordinary work that I do because I’m somehow connected to them,” says Yvette. “It drives my inspiration.”
While a standard A3 piece may be completed in a matter of hours, the larger works may take a number of months. “I value myself for being able to create a really high standard and be efficient at the same time,” Yvette explains.
She’s the kind that works well under pressure. She strives to never disappoint a client, frequently delivering more than was expected. “There’s so much faith and trust in what I can do for them, and I think that comes out of really great communication,” she says. “But a photograph is never as good as the real thing when they unwrap it when it arrives at their place.”
Her art has created connections all over the country, and now across continents. In 2016, Yvette had her first art exhibition in America, organised by the biggest equestrian organisation in the States – the Quarter Horse Association.
She sold every piece at the exhibition, and now hopes to return to the country every couple of years to spend a few months painting and selling her work. A colouring book she also created during the trip is now stocked at the prestigious Manhattan Saddlery in New York.
“One of my big ambitions is to get a solid foothold in America,” Yvette tells me; she’s also had interest from multiple parties in China and sees potential to expand there.
Ultimately, she aims “to be one of the best equine artists in the world.” It’s no small dream, but her work speaks for itself, and Yvette has confidence in her ability and dedication.
On a smaller scale, she tells me, “I’d also like to see if I can produce another good horse over jumps, so I can keep riding!”
It all comes down to the horses, after all; they’re Yvette’s inspiration, and from the number of commissions she receives from around the world, it’s clear they inspire their owners everywhere.
“There seems to be nothing more fabulous about being a horse person than to have original artwork on your walls,” Yvette says. “That’s been one of the fascinating things; how do we measure our love and our dedication and our passion for [our] horses?
One is having those horses and committing our lives to them. But I’m finding the artwork seems to be, for many people now, the other side of that dedication and that ultimate love.”
“That’s why I do it with my own horses. In doing it, it feels like they will be part of my world forever.”